Islanders-Rangers : Shared Expectations


Always facing off with each other, in more ways than one.  Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations can be very tough to overcome. We face them every day, whether it is at work or at home. Sometimes they are placed upon a person unjustly and sometimes – when a person goes so far above and beyond what was anticipated – the expectation – becomes automatic.

For example, a high school student making C grades for his freshman and sophomore years suddenly pulls straight A’s as a junior. He is now expected to provide the same level of dedication and hard work as a senior.

At work, our boss was always satisfied that we fulfilled our daily functions and requirements that our quality of work was never in doubt. Then all of a sudden, we go out and nail consecutive multimillion dollar clients, bringing with them tons of revenue for the firm that employs us. Suddenly our goals and objectives on our next review are now scaled forward to meet those new challenges that have been set for us…..inadvertently by ourselves.

This theory is no different in sports, as it applies across a wide spectrum ranging from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and of course, the National Hockey League.

There is no clearer indication of this than the reversal of fortunes between two heated rivals in the Eastern Conference: The New York Islanders and New York Rangers.

While the Islanders stayed on a path geared towards youth and rebuilding a depleted farm system with long term goals in mind, the Rangers were always at the forefront, snatching up the most prized free agent acquisitions and pushing their ‘win now’ attitude on a fervent fanbase. They have been labeled in some respects as the ‘NHL Yankees’, who after years of following the same philosophy, have now scaled back in spending and have numerous aging, former superstars on whom they rely nightly.

This year, the Rangers clearly have not responded to head coach John Tortorella’s forceful and unforgiving coaching style in the same way they did last year, en route to the conference finals before falling in six games to the New Jersey Devils.

I had said it all throughout last season that the Rangers out-performed expectations at 51-24-7 and even on their march in the playoffs – 2 straight seven-game series against teams that were not as evenly matched as them on paper, at least.

When they made the splash of the off-season by acquiring top-flight winger Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, everyone jumped on the Ranger bandwagon, proclaiming them Stanley Cup finalists and the team to beat in the East. But, ask yourself this: did Nash solve the Rangers scoring woes or is he just another fall-guy for whom Tortorella can attack when things don’t go right.

This season, the team is 24th in the league in goals-per-game at 2.42 and there can be an argument made that if they did not possess the best goaltender in the Eastern Conference in Henrik Lundqvist, they might be even further down in the standings than their current 8th position, where they are fighting for their playoff lives.

At the trade deadline, when the realization that the loss of Brandon Prust, John Mitchell, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov hurt more than originally projected, they went out and acquired soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Ryane Clowe (2 assists in his last 7 games), Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore. The Blue Shirts then traded the enigmatic Marian Gaborik, who scored 40+ goals in 2 of 3 seasons for the Rangers but had only 9 in 35 games this season (21-goal pace).

There is something to be said for expectations leading to increased pressure and you could clearly see that in the way the Gaborik situation unfolded. Here was a guy getting paid to put the puck in the net for a team yearning for more goals, yet he was not allowed the offensive freedom to do so. Here was a guy berated in the media by his own coach and often benched for long stretches. It was clear this relationship started and ended with Tortorella and his gladiator-type, Keenan-esque style of coaching.

That may have worked for the Rangers in 1994, but just does not translate to today’s type of NHL player.

The expectations placed upon the Rangers to advance deep into the playoffs, even to the Stanley Cup Finals, were way too high to overcome and there was inevitably going to be a letdown. Could it be, that at the end of the day, this team is just not that good? Sure, they are probably in the top half of the NHL spectrum but they’re nowhere near the quality of a Stanley Cup contender : It’s unlikely they’ll perform up to that level this year or in any future year I can see, given their propensity to not develop youth (see the severe mishandling this year of both Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller and the trade of defenseman Tim Erixon) and their habit of spending on veterans on their last legs.

The realization that Brad Richards will be gone on an amnesty buyout this summer is very real, given that the Rangers are very tight to the salary cap even after moving the 7.5M cap hit of Gaborik. What will the offense look like next year? Maybe the writers who come out with their preseason preview might ease up a little on the Rangers and start them off with a more realistic 5-8th place finish next season in the Eastern Conference.

How this relates to the Islanders is simple. The fanbase is excited right now, almost whipped up into a shark- type feeding frenzy, of sorts. And it should be. It has been a long time since the club has been so good on the ice and so welcomed in the mainstream media. There is a lot to feel good about not only this year, but in the years to come with the arrival of several so called can’t-miss prospects that have been developing in Bridgeport. Could these prospects not pan out and perform at the level expected? Sure, hence the careful evaluation of expectations.

With the success that Charles Wang and Garth Snow have now built from the top of the organization on down the result will be increased expectations on this Islanders team and all future variations of it. No longer will they be written off before training camp even opens: no longer will games from January through April not mean anything except playing for proverbial pride: no longer will we see prospects take the place of veterans in February with the coaching staff claiming, “We have to see what we have here”.

The team on the ice is going to be expected to continue its ascension among the perennial playoff contenders in the league and that it consistently performs at the level we have seen over this incredible run during the last month and a half.

The cautionary tale here for the fans who have waited so patiently for that aforementioned ascension is to enjoy the moment and this time of a return to relevance, but never forget the lean years that made this possible. For in every success, there was failure before it. And to forget that failure would be naïve and irresponsible.

When this club, whether it be this year or next, hits a rough patch – and make no mistake, it will happen – keep an even keel, stick with the program that leadership has elegantly crafted and remember that good times will always be right around the corner. For this is not a team that is immune to slumps but it does have the talent to ride them out and come out stronger and even better.